Tuesday, May 5, 2009

So this is what an epiphany feels like...

Tuesday, April 28, 2009 was a day that I both anticipated and dreaded. I knew it was going to be a long day, because I had three speaking gigs scheduled--two at a school district in Bedford, NY, and one later that day in Stamford, CT. In Bedford, I was to speak to two groups of middle schoolers--8th graders in the morning assembly, and 6th graders in the afternoon. Nicole Turon-Diaz (my friend/business manager) and I arrived at the school around 9:20am, and there we met up with Joanne McMahon, with whom Nicole and I had coordinated to arrange the day's events. We all chatted for awhile and became familiar with each other, and then in we went to set up for the assembly. The campus had both the middle and high schools on it, and was quite beautiful indeed--never before have I seen such perfectly landscaped grass. The auditorium facility in the high school, which is where the assemblies took place, was also quite lovely.

First came the 8th graders, at 10:00am. I'd forgotten the utter volume at which 14-year-olds operate, and when they began to file into the auditorium, what started as a slight clamor soon escalated into a dull roar of tympanic cavity-throbbing teenage tones (damn you, Micky Dolenz, for renewing my obsession with alliteration). The school principal quieted them down soon enough, though, and then introduced the middle school's Autism Speaks club, which was the sponsor of my appearance. Now, I have said before that I have multiple issues with the Autism Speaks organization, and I did indeed raise an eyebrow upon hearing the name of the club, but I tried to put my animosity aside and just be grateful that a middle school even has an autism club. Anyway...one of the club members proceeded to introduce Joanne McMahon, who then introduced me.

I was unsure about how things would go. Nervous, even. Middle schoolers are a notoriously challenging audience, as I remember from the days of my own misspent youth, and I feared I would not be able to "reach" them.

I could not have been happier to be so wrong.

They were, without question, the most enthusiastic, open junior high kids I've ever encountered. I never knew that junior high kids like that could exist, and it gave me a faint glimmer of promise for the future. It instilled in me the fevered hope that the next generation won't all be made up of sadistic little miscreants, like the ones with whom I matriculated for ten excruciating years.

In both assemblies, I decided to read the Letter to My Younger Self at the start of my speeches, to "bring them in" to the talk. When I finished reading it, they applauded and cheered. They "woo"ed me! The 8th and 6th graders alike had this reaction, and I was simply stunned, because I've never gotten that sort of response before. And when it came time for the Q&A part at the end, they asked the most insightful, awesome questions. One girl asked me if I forgive the people who made fun of me in school. I was not expecting that kind of a question, but I loved it. I tried my best to answer everything they asked me, and they seemed almost disappointed when one of the teachers called the assembly to an end! Nicole and I talked with Joanne about perhaps using my blog as a vehicle to answer more of their questions. We might even do a podcast, so they'll send me their questions and I will answer them on camera. So we'll see what happens with that.

I told the kids that they could come up to me after the assembly, and several of them did! Particularly in the 6th grade assembly. One girl came up to me and said that she knew what it felt like to be made fun of because she had alopecia in 3rd or 4th grade and her hair had fallen out and the kids teased her because of it. A whole gaggle of girls came up to me, and one said that I was "fabulous," and another said she loved my dress and shoes. Suffice it to say, I now (sort of) know what it feels like to be a boy band member. They were all just so inquisitive and shared their feelings and thoughts with me, and I was amazed. The last time I was among that many junior high schoolers, they didn't give me the time of day and I was as good as invisible...but now, I was someone they respected and felt comfortable talking to. What a difference. I definitely, definitely want to speak at more schools in the future. I can see now how much this sort of thing is needed, and how open the kids are (or can be) to it, and so I've got to keep doing it.

By far, however, the most incredible thing occurred after the first morning assembly, with the eighth graders. Joanne and Peter Faustino, the school psychologist, brought Nicole and me to a conference room in the middle school building for lunch. After we finished eating, the four of us went on a walking tour of the campus. As we traversed through the halls and outside past the buildings, the eighth graders actually waved to me from their classroom windows! When we were in the hallways, they'd call out to me: "Hey, Amy!" / "Great job today, Amy!" / "You did an awesome job, Amy!" / "I really liked your speech!" It was beyond surreal. Maybe eighth grade was just a long time ago and my memory is faulty, but I can't remember us kids paying a lot of attention to assemblies when they were going on, let alone giving them a second thought afterwards. So this was above and beyond anything I could've ever imagined. Joanne also asked me to come back again for more gigs, including speaking to the high school students, and I can't wait to do so.

Later that evening, I had another speaking gig, this one at a meeting sponsored by a parent group called Stamford Education 4 Autism, and based (obviously) in Stamford, Connecticut. Robin Portanova, the woman who'd contacted me and Nicole, had also invited my parents to attend, and asked my mother to say a few words, too. In addition, she'd told us that she planned to treat us to dinner! So, we all met up at a restaurant called The 19th Hole, which was just down the street from the school where the meeting was taking place. I had rigatoni with mild and hot sausages in a marsala sauce. I hadn't been sure whether to order that or the pasta primavera, but as soon as I took one bite, I knew I'd made the right choice. The bread on the table was also delicious and made a terrific accompaniment.

The meeting itself began shortly after 7:00pm. Robin spoke first, and after the school principal said a few words, Robin then introduced my mother. My mom spoke for ten minutes, and then it was my turn. Once again, I read the Letter to my Younger Self, and again, I received a round of applause at its conclusion...but I also noticed that there was nary a dry eye in the house. At the conclusion of my speech, Robin gave me a bouquet of flowers wrapped in purple(!) tissue paper, and she gave flowers to my mom and Nicole as well. We finally departed around 9:30, and I got back to Jersey about an hour and ten minutes later. I was dead exhausted upon returning home (having been up since 6 that morning), but it was well worth it. I had honestly expected to just be tired at the end of the day, but I was so jazzed from the school assemblies that the high those kids' reactions had given me carried me through the rest of the day (which only got better at the parent meeting).

Happily, I brought my videocamera with me, and Nicole videotaped the entire 8th grade assembly (including the Q&A), and the parent group speech (including my mother's portion). Once this week ends and my semester is over (and I actually have the time to fiddle with it), I will try to get those uploaded soon and I'll share them with you all here on my blog.

So keep your peepers peeled for that, and please--if you work in a school district, or know someone who works for a district, or are a parent, strongly consider having me come to speak at your school, either to the faculty and staff or the students (or both!). I don't mean to toot my own horn here, but the reactions I got from students, staff, and parents alike last Tuesday galvanized me in a way that I never have felt before. I believe that I can make a difference, and I want to help in any way possible. And if you're worried about budgets or money, don't fret--my fee is negotiable based on the needs and ability of each organization/district. Our kids and adults with autism and Asperger's syndrome need us now, people. We need better trained paraprofessionals and teachers, and a student body that is aware of the youths with autism among them, because they are being so mainstreamed now.

When I spoke in Edison, NJ on April 23rd, during the Q&A, a woman asked me a question. She said that she has a daughter with autism who is about 7 years old, and that she's tried to talk to her school principal about educating the other kids about autism, because they've already begun to bully her daughter. The principal didn't think that the kids were ready to know--he thought that they were too young and that finding out that this woman's daughter had autism could backfire and make things worse. She asked me if I agreed with what her principal said, and my exact words were, "It's a load of horse pucky." Why? Because if kids are old enough to bully, they're old enough to learn. If they're old enough to recognize that someone is "different," than they're old enough to know why. Plain and simple.

This is why I believe so strongly in speaking at the schools, to the students. They're ready for it. Heck, they're more than ready for it--they need it. And kids know from a mile away if you're trying to b.s. them, which is why I believe the students in Bedford responded so strongly to me--because they knew I was speaking from the heart. So I just hope that more districts will give me a chance to come in and keep doing this, because I know that I have the ability to do great good. Autism doesn't last for just one month; "awareness" is always needed, all year round.